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Remembering Steve Harrison – A Story of Decency and Compassion

Steve Harrison passed away July 10, but his legacy was cemented years earlier with a deep commitment to outplacement support, and an unparalleled passion for building positive relationships with both employees and clients.

Pete Alcide knew that anytime he traveled with Steve Harrison to visit LHH offices around the world, none of their meetings would start on time.

The co-founder of LHH and one of the true pioneers of the outplacement industry – who passed away July 10 – Harrison would always do the same thing when he entered one of his company’s office.

“The first thing he would always do was introduce himself to the receptionist, who he called the ‘director of first impressions,’” Alcide recalled. “And then, he would just start wandering through the office introducing himself, stopping with everyone to have a chat. I had to tell him three or four times to get into the boardroom because we needed to start the meeting. My first thought, quite frankly, was that he was really wasting everyone’s time.”

However, it didn’t take long for Alcide to see the method in Harrison’s madness.

“It took me a couple of years to figure it out. He felt it was important to take the time to meet people and find out how they were doing. He never just blew into an office and walked past people without saying something. He wanted everyone to know that he cared about who they were and how they were feeling. It wasn’t about him; he wanted them to know that he saw them and heard them.”

Alcide paused. “That was Steve. That’s all you really need to know about him.”

Harrison passed away July 10, but his legacy was cemented years earlier with a deep commitment to outplacement support, and an unparalleled passion for building positive relationships with both employees and clients.

Finding his calling in the outplacement industry would take some years for Harrison.

After obtaining his MBA at the University of Cincinnati, Harrison spent 14 years as the director of Industrial Relations for Tenneco Inc., one of the world’s largest manufacturers of automotive equipment. He also spent time working for an oil company in Houston, where he served as director of personnel.

In 1982, “the two Bobs,” as his family calls them: Robert Lee and Robert Hecht, two New York City psychologists, established a niche human resources practice on the second floor of the then-Pan Am building (now MetLife Building) on Park Avenue in Manhattan. They approached Steve as part of a sales meeting, after which he ended up joining their company.  Lee Hecht & Associates was lovingly described by Harrison as a “consulting commune,” with a wide array of human resources specialists operating their independent practices out of the Lee Hecht space.

The two Bobs wanted to grow the business and thought that Harrison could help refine their vision. Alcide said Steve looked closely at the structure of the consulting commune and quickly determined that outplacement, still in its infancy, had the greatest potential for growth and scalability.

What he learned over his time working with Harrison was that outplacement, the core solution for LHH, was not just a business pursuit; it was Harrison’s calling.

“I dare say outplacement was Steve’s passion,” Alcide said. “He was a good salesman and most people know, good salesmen pride themselves on being able to sell anything. But that’s not what drove Steve. He could only sell something if he believed in it, and he believed that outplacement was a way that he could really help people.”

Harrison’s deep desire to help people, both those who worked for LHH and those they served through outplacement programs, was evident as well to his family: wife Shirley, and children Amy, Leslie, and Mark and his eight grandchildren. Steve’s kids were all united in the view that their dad applied the same values at home as he did at the office.

“My dad had this way of making you feel as if you were the only person in the room when he was talking to you,” Amy said. “It was amazing. At first, you know, we had trouble figuring out why he wanted to build their careers around dealing with people in job loss, which is some of their darkest moments. But when we think about how he was at home, it made sense: he really wanted to help people in those moments. It’s the way he led his family, and it’s the way he led at his business.”

As children, Steve’s kids said that they would often go and visit their father in the Pan Am building. They often remembered him delaying his departure from the office so that he could go around at the end of the workday and speak one-on-one with everyone who was still at work. 

“I remember one Friday night in particular, I think I was eight years old, and all of the other executives were rushing to get out of the office for the weekend,” Amy said. “But there he was, walking the halls, saying goodnight to every receptionist and employee who was still at work, wishing them a good weekend. These were the small gestures he made that few people got to see.”

In addition to his remarkable career at LHH, Harrison was also an author, publishing two books on ethics in leadership. The Managers Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Build Great Companies was published in 2007, and The Decency Code: The Leader’s Path to Building Integrity and Trust came out in 2020. The books provide powerful insight into Harrison’s personal philosophy of business, and the concern he had for what appeared to be an erosion in ethical leadership.

“I have spent much of my professional life trying to answer one simple question: can decency be institutionalized in a company so that it is an everyday occurrence, built into the culture and modelled daily by leaders?” Harrison wrote in a 2020 commentary on his book, published by LHH. “If we were able to do that, we would need far fewer dedicated resources in the area of ethics and compliance or sweeping laws to enforce decency.”

Although Harrison would go on to answer his own question in the affirmative – institutional decency is achievable – he also challenged leaders to dig deep during the pandemic and re-invent themselves to change the lives of the people they encounter daily. “As leaders, our job is to create hope where it may be lacking and transfer our strength and wisdom to those people who may be feeling weak or depleted.”

According to James Lukaszewski, co-author of The Decency Code, Harrison applied that philosophy in everything he did in his career. A crisis management consultant, Lukaszewski learned in his own moment of darkness just what a great friend Harrison could be.

Lukaszewski said that years before they wrote the book, he found out his wife Barbara had Alzheimer’s. “When Steve found out Barbara was sick, he called me all the time, almost every day, and asked what he could do. He just wanted to see how we were doing. After she died, he continued to call me every day for about a year. Where do you find friends like that? Thoughtful is an understatement when it comes to Steve.”

The test of any leader’s value is the extent to which the culture they create lasts beyond their departure. According to LHH President John Morgan, Harrison’s impact on the company he helped found lives on today.

“The LHH brand and culture is what convinced me to come work here all those years ago, and Steve was the main force in creating that culture,” Morgan said. “He made it clear our goal in our work, and in life, was to help people when they were at their most vulnerable. And he didn’t just say those things, he led by example, showing us every day how much he cared for all of us, particularly if he knew someone was going through a tough time. A leader who demonstrates that kind of compassion has the power to pass it on to all the people who work for him. And that’s what Steve did.”

Of course, no one knew Harrison as well as his wife of 46 years, Shirley, who said the foundation of their remarkable relationship was that it was a true partnership. “He was so giving,” Shirley said. “He was always looking for ways to help people.”

In the last year of his life, Shirley said Steve agreed to let her adopt a cat, something she had always wanted to do but never pursued because he was highly allergic. Finally, she said, he relented when they were hunkered down in Florida, riding out the first wave of the pandemic.

“I saw a cat at a shelter and asked, again, if he thought we could take it home. He surprised me. ‘Okay Shirley, if you really want it.’ So, we adopted a cat. For a few days, he took Benadryl and then he said that he wasn’t allergic anymore. I am not sure I believed him. But he was so happy that I could have a cat. That he could do something for me.”

Although the pandemic presented many challenges, Shirley said that she and Steve thoroughly enjoyed the time they spent at home right up to the moment he passed.

“We did not have a single moment of not wanting to be with each other. It was a tough time for everyone, but for us, it seemed almost more beautiful, intimate nurturing. Throughout our entire time together, we tried to make each other happy. You can’t ask for more than that.”